- Associated Press - Thursday, September 22, 2011

MADISON, Wis. — Following a bitter battle over worker rights that attracted national attention earlier this year, Wisconsin no longer will be obligated to bargain with its largest public-employee unions after the weakened labor groups decided Thursday against seeking recertification votes in the state.

The unions representing about 50,000 workers opted not to file notice of an intention to hold the complicated and expensive votes required by Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s sweeping collective-bargaining changes passed by lawmakers earlier this year. The unions now will be able to request informal talks with state agencies, but formal negotiations will go by the wayside.

Salary increases no greater than inflation were the only item that even remained subject to bargaining under the state’s new law, which took effect after months of divisive political wrangling and massive protests at the state Capitol. Unions lost the power to negotiate workplace safety standards, vacations and health care benefits, and other issues - all of which had been subject to collective bargaining since Wisconsin became the first state to require it in 1959.

Labor leaders and lawmakers alike said they still hoped informal talks would continue.

“Prior to 1959, there wasn’t official recognition and unions were very engaged in the workplace,” said Bryan Kennedy, president of the 17,000-member American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin. “The most important thing is unions are going to do what they did prior to 1959, and that is we’re going to be the watchdogs for waste, fraud and abuse in these agencies.”

Experiences in Mississippi and other states without collective bargaining show public employees still can work with employers to get what they want, said Paul Secunda, a labor law professor and program coordinator for the Marquette Labor and Employment Law Program in Milwaukee. He also called the Wisconsin unions’ decision not to pour resources into the recertification votes a “smart move.”

“It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of formal recognition. But what you do have is strength in numbers. It’s only going to be the most callous state employer that ignores that,” Mr. Secunda said. “The problem is, beyond consideration, there is no stick backed up by the law to force them to do anything.”

State Rep. Robin Vos, a Republican who employs 20 non-union workers at a food packaging business and was a staunch supporter of Mr. Walker’s plan, said he expects there will be informal talks with state employees.

“It’s common sense to say we’re going to talk with employees as a state,” Mr. Vos said.

State Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat and one of 14 senators who fled to Illinois this summer in a vain attempt to block passage of the bill, said holding even informal talks with state employees would lead to a feeling of disenfranchisement among workers and raise the risk of serious job actions such as strikes.

Mr. Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, had no comment Thursday on unions’ decision not to seek recertification votes.

In addition to requiring the votes to maintain certification, the new law also bans automatic dues withdrawal from union members’ paychecks, forcing them to voluntarily contribute.

Union leaders have refused to say how many members are voluntarily paying dues. The statewide teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, announced in August that it was laying off 42 people 40 percent of its staff as a cost-savings step.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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